The New Imperative for Leadership: Simplicity.

It doesn't have to be complicated.
Did you start today vowing to make your organization more complex? To make it harder for customers to connect with your company? To create frustration among your employees?

The answer, of course, is “No!” In several decades of work with leaders of organizations of all sizes, I have yet to find someone who consciously sets out to make their organization more complex.

The truth however is that organizations are growing increasingly complex – from supply chains that stretch across the world, to increasing regulation, to an explosion of information and technology, to more demanding and diverse customers. 

Beyond the external environmental factors, the way organizations manage themselves often leads to paralyzing levels of complexity. The way they structure and supervise can make it difficult to accomplish routine tasks, making work a source of alienation instead of exhilaration.  

One firm, in the midst of a reorganization asked staff to re-apply for their jobs in a lengthy process all in pursuit of “fairness,” even when no competition existed for their roles. For a staff already logging long hours amid the economic downturn, this wasted effort added to employees’ frustration with the company and its leadership. 

These internally created sources of complexity often have little to do with running a successful company. Yet, they can become an accepted and debilitating part of an organization, like plaque slowly building on hardening arteries, unnoticed until it reaches dangerous levels.

It doesn’t have to be this way – simplicity can be woven into the organization’s core – from the management of products and services; to the way structure and reporting are focused; to the way processes are streamlined; to how managers make their own behaviors an example of simplicity in action. And while it takes work to remove complexity the benefits are well worth the effort.

For example, a mid-sized pharmaceutical company decided to simplify a R&D process that proliferated as the company grew. What was once an easy, effective effort became a time-sink for staff and a source of significant delay for the company. A cross-functional team created a new process and standard ways of working globally, and also identified and overcame
long-established, unproductive ways of working. The resulting process now delivers a 50 percent reduction in total effort over prior patterns.

To drive complexity out of your organization’s arteries consider the following:

1.     Champion simplicity. If it’s not your priority, it’s no one’s priority.    

  • Even small changes have a profound impact. In one manufacturing company, leadership insisted people reporting in review meetings use a standard format focused on core topics. And if people were not prepared, their reports were shelved until the next session. Insisting on this there was a major shift for the entire company to simpler and more productive meetings.

2.     Build simplicity into your organization’s strategy to make a strong business case for it and to ensure it’s part of the company’s longer-term success.

  • The leader of a struggling regional organization started the transformation of his group by creating a coherent, multi-year growth strategy focused on two simplicity-related themes. Driving out waste in order to reduce cost and accelerating the introduction of new products to core markets to increase revenue. This strategy powered the way ahead for the company over the next several years.

3.     Drive out complexity in ways that matter to your organization’s people. Our experience is that the front-line staff feels complexity’s “pain” much more acutely than do senior managers – and has a more accurate sense of where to launch initial simplicity efforts to make significant and swift improvements.

  • For example, one organization gave staff an on-line Complexity Assessment. The leadership team used the outputs as the basis for choosing initial topics for creating simpler processes and ways of working across the group. 

Another simple way to proceed is to use an early version of GE’s WorkOut process
– gathering people from various parts of an organization to identify and take action to simplify reports, approvals, meetings, etc. Otherwise known as a RAMMPP WorkOut, involving staff to tackle these aspects of work can jump start efforts to reduce complexity, build morale and improve performance. And often quite significant ideas come from such simple, initial efforts. 

Matthew McCreight is Managing Partner at Schaffer Consulting, a leader in the development and practice of organizational and cultural change for 50 years. To connect with Matthew, email him here. Also for more on simplicity and how to champion it in your organization visit

Created with input from “Simply Effective: How to Cut Through Complexity in Your Organization and Get Things Done” (Harvard Business Press, 2010) by Schaffer Consulting’s Ron Ashkenas.

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